Actually, this new use for soybeans looks good on the surface - and on paper.

Paints and inks are potential destinations for a new drying oil made from soybean oil.

The potential payoff for soybean growers is significant. Replacing current drying oils with a soybean oil-based product could mean an additional 82 million bushels of annual soybean sales, say United Soybean Board (USB) sources.

Researchers at Iowa State University, funded by USB, have discovered ways to alter the fatty acids of soybean oil and incorporate them into the alkyd resins used in most oil-based paints and surface coatings.

The potential result: a fast-drying replacement for the currently used tung and castor oils that are two to three times more costly.

In addition to its economic advantage, preliminary tests at Eastern Michigan University's Coatings Research Institute show that this conjugated soybean oil dries paint faster. And its shelf life (two years) is comparable to that of existing drying oils.

Other pluses: The altered soybean oil doesn't emit potentially harmful fumes, is biodegradable and comes from a readily available, renewable natural resource.

Ink manufacturers and makers of interior and exterior paints and coatings are the two potential markets, says Bart Bremmer, commercialization manager for Omni Tech International, Midland, MI.

A few hurdles must be cleared before the product can be commercialized. Soybean oils inherently cause yellowing and reduce the hardness of a coating, says Jamil Baghdachi, professor and program director at Eastern Michigan.

"However, there are ways to attack those issues, and we are working to resolve them," says Baghdachi.

"The modern catalytic technology as applied at Iowa State has given us hope that we will be able to make this material effectively, efficiently and economically," adds Bremmer. "The next step is to scale up and adapt this project from the research lab to commercial facilities at competitive costs."

The soy-based drying oil is still a few years away from commercialization. But Bremmer hopes it will capture 20% of the drying oils market within five years.

"With the elevating prices of current drying oils and recent air pollution regulations limiting the use of volatile solvents and emissions from surface coatings, we see opportunity for this soybean oil application," he says.